Hineni: Here I am, A Learner and Wanderer—A Jewish Tour of San Francisco
Throwback: My experience as a wandering Jew in my new city
By Bobby Apperson, May 2021
San Francisco is sublime: the hills, the water, the architecture; and the unique lures of trolleys, steep climbs, a mash of cultures, creativity, and sights you can’t see anywhere else, like a gorgeous suspension bridge on the ocean and Alcatraz island looming in the bay.
The oldest Jewish communities in the western United States are in San Francisco, many of their buildings clustered in its northwest corner near that bridge and bay, nestled under the Presidio park and featuring impressive domes and stones, as if lifted directly from Europe (where most temples didn’t survive) or New York City.
I moved here on a whim, kind of; I first visited SF in 2002, fell in love over the course of 5 whirlwind days, then quickly returned back to Texas life and my last year in college. Several short years later—15 years ago right now, to be exact—I finally trekked to the west coast, a sort of modern ’49er—wanting to unearth what the buzz was all about. Would I strike gold in the Pacific Northwest?
Yet after braving two Seattle winters I was ready to move on. The year 2008 saw me switching jobs only to have the market fall out, and my search in tech kept me in Seattle longer than I planned. I visited San Francisco a few times in 2009, falling in love with the city again, soaking in springtime in the hills with friends, Easter Sunday festivities in Dolores Park, seeing friends who’d moved from Austin and Seattle, and picturing my life there in the Mission or around it.
But then the market crashed and come 2011, I was still in Seattle, partnered, and ready to leave both the north and the tech industry. I would wind up in SoCal for the next 10 years, then divorced, and on a path that ultimately led me to Judaism. I transitioned back to music, opening Songsmith LA, and lived in Los Angeles, Barcelona for a spell after Trump was installed, San Diego, and most recently, Palm Springs.
SF is a flawed, gorgeous, unique-in-all-the-world gem sitting on 49 square miles and over 50 hills, arguably the political soul of California, the tech capital of the world, and marvelously queer, diverse, and constantly-changing and shaping the larger culture.
Part of that culture and search for me is the Jewish community, and here is what I’ve experienced so far. Like, literally, this is it, because the city was on lockdown at the time, for one, and the only in-person Jewish experience I’ve had since Rosh Hashanah was my mikveh—until Shavuot. Below, some photos of my exterior tours, and my experience visiting the Jewish community The Kitchen on the holiday of Shavuot, marking the receiving of Torah in the desert.
During the Gold Rush in 1849, a small group of Jews held the first High Holy Days services on the west coast of the United States in San Francisco. This group of traders and merchants founded Congregation Emanu-El sometime in 1850, and its charter was issued in April, 1851
During the Gold Rush in 1849, a small group of Jews held the first High Holy Days services on the west coast of the United States in San Francisco. This group of traders and merchants founded Congregation Emanu-El sometime in 1850, and its charter was issued in April, 1851. You can walk from here to the Presidio, which I did on a lovely, foggy day.
Congregation Sherith Israel (“loyal remnant of Israel“) is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. It was established during California’s Gold Rush period and reflects the ambitions of early Jewish settlers to San Francisco. Today it is a congregation widely known for its innovative approach to worship and lifecycle celebrations and is part of the movement of Reform Judaism. Its historic sanctuary building is one of San Francisco’s most prominent architectural landmarks and attracts visitors from all over the world.
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The Kitchen is one part shabbat + justice + torah community, one part San Francisco experiment and one part tool kit for jewish life at home. We’re doing old and holy things in new ways. We believe that Jewish religious practice can transform: It can change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world. And we want to do everything we can to get you in on it.
What a lovely hilltop experience. This was my first group event since the pandemic, and connection was hard; it was freezing, we were masked, and it was brief. I’m new and I will return, and can’t wait to connect with other Jewish humans whose faces I can see. The views, the flowers, and the welcome were beautiful, and Molly bear had a great time (pictured below).
Flowers! Fog! Coyotes by my car! And my first in-person Shavuot. Much more to come as I visit each of these lovely places in person, indoors, and others, too.
Follow Bobby Apperson at @ba.songsmith for many more adventures.